Featuring electric performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an explosive and fearless 21st Century Western. Combining bold visuals with a sharp script full of biting wit and drama, the film is pure indulgence. It succeeds where so many others fail, balancing both comedy and tragedy, and blending the two in a daring and delicious fashion.
Django (Foxx) is a slave in Southern America who is unexpectedly freed by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter who requires help with his next hits. The two form a bond and Schultz later agrees to assist Django in tracking down his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who has been bought by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a plantation owner. The first half of the film sees the two men going about their Bounty Hunting business in an amusing manner, with shots and music drawing on a long tradition of Spaghetti Westerns. An especially funny scene sees a group of masked clansman arguing over the size of their eye-holes right before they attempt an act of mob justice.
It is when the characters arrive at Candyland (Candie’s plantation) that the film begins to explore the sordid nature of a Southern hospitality built on the slave trade. DiCaprio’s character oozes sliminess, creeping about in a maroon jacket and beige bowler hat, offering his friendliness on the condition that everyone submit to his dark and twisted desires. Even his most jovial speech is tinged with hostility, making him the epitome of a smooth-talking villain. It’s here that most of the action takes place, and there is a lot of it. Pairing bloody scenes with dialogue so sensational it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, the latter half of the film is an exercise in tension, and a homage to the shootout.
Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Washington are joined by a supporting cast that includes the likes of Samuel L Jackson (his role as Stephen, Calvin’s loyal house slave, is played with fantastic bitterness), Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, and Don Johnson, and together they form one of the best line-ups in recent years. Even bit parts are acted with liveliness and vigour meaning every scene is filled to the brim with personality. Foxx exudes cool level-headedness as the main protagonist on a journey of self-discovery; reserved yet commanding, he remains a powerful presence right up until the end, and his deadpan delivery of sarcastic lines lends the film most of its playfulness. The chemistry between himself and Waltz is what makes their conversations one of the highlights of the movie. Waltz is extremely likeable as the Bounty Hunter with a moral conscience whose beliefs are neither sentimentalised nor forced, meaning that his integrity is refreshing. His speech is like that of a riddler or a poet, posing eloquent questions and providing longwinded introductions that are often met with vacant looks. The word “parley” rolls off his tongue with a delightful German twang that contrasts well with the deep Southern drawl of the locals. It was also nice to see Zoe Bell, Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero make guest appearances, their presence only adding to the quality of the picture.
With an exhilarating soundtrack that includes music taken from old Westerns (Ennio Morricone’s “The Braying Mule”, and the theme from the 1966 Django) as well as original songs by Rick Ross and John Legend, Django Unchained matches its brilliantly choreographed scenes with booming sounds that send the heart racing. The crisp whites of snowy mountains, the blacks and reds of dark forests, and the acidic yellows and greens of hot and sweaty plantations, are rendered more intoxicating by the brilliant sounds that accompany them. Never taking itself too seriously, my favourite scene in the film is the one where Django rides bareback across the plains to the sound of “Who Did That To You”. I’ll never fully understand how Tarantino manages to make concepts that are so tacky, so fiercely epic.
Pulling together threads from numerous sources and eras, this is a film that looks back as much as it steps forward. Making continual nods to other directors and actors, Django Unchained is born of an admiration for a genre that up until now was dead and buried. And yet it never feels stale or repetitive in its act of tribute. Fresh and lively, it flits between seriousness and pastiche with effortless ease, eliciting both laughter and shock. Entertaining from start to finish, it is a brash and forthright film that some viewers will undoubtedly be offended by. But criticise its comic-book violence all you like, its solid-gold entertainment value is undeniable.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★